Posts filed under 'Martyrs'

1813: Albrecht Ludwig von Berger and Christian Daniel von Finckh, Oldenburgers

Add comment April 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1813, the Napoleonic forces occupying Oldenburg, Germany shot Albrecht Ludwig von Berger and Christian Daniel von Finckh as rebels.

The Duchy of Oldenburg in northwest Germany could date its history back to the 12th century — but the end of its run was Napoleon’s takeover in 1810. This action helped break up France’s tenuous arrangement with Russia and lead to continental war, because the tsar’s sister was married to the Duke of Oldenburg. Russia had gone so far as to write Oldenburg’s sovereignty into its treaty with Napoleon.

The ultimate knock-on effects included France’s disastrous invasion of Russia and the collapse of Napoleon’s army.

As we meet Oldenburg in 1813, the French are headed the other way, harried by a vast European coalition. While the overall arc of this war bends towards French retreat, the situation at any given time and place was unpredictable, and Napoleon often gave better than he got.

Such uncertain circumstances offer martyrdom to the unlikeliest of characters. Berger and Finckh were just bureaucratic types, respectable figures in their own day whose peers’ bones presently molder unattended in the forlorn appendices of especially thorough genealogists.

But at a momentary nadir of French authority in Oldenburg in March 1813, local risings and the threat of Russian cavalry temporarily put the French administration to flight — leaving in its place a temporary administrative commission to which both Berger and Finckh belonged.

Had Oldenburg immediately fallen to the Sixth Coalition, that item would be a footnote to a treatise on governance in the duchy. Instead, the French regained authority and decided that our two principals were a little too subversively enthusiastic about running Oldenburg sans France. The notoriously hard-hearted commander Dominique Vandamme had them condemned at a court-martial on April 9, and the sentence put to execution the very next day. (The other commissioners got off with prison sentences.)

Little more than a year later, the two were posthumously rehabilitated by the restored dynasty of the post-French Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Though minor figures in the scheme of things, every martyr pays the same coin; accordingly, the patriotic German might wish to spare a moment for the memorial to them in Oldenburg’s historic Gertrudenfriedhof cemetery.


Memorial to Berger and Finckh at Gertrudenfriedhof in Oldenburg, Germany. (cc) image from Corradox.

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1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

-Tecumseh, to William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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1687: The first of the Martyrs of Eperjes

Add comment March 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1687, the Austrian empire made the first of its many Protestant martyrs in Eperjes — the Hungarian name for the city now in Slovakia, where it is known as Prešov.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Zrinski-Frankopan Hungarian conspiracy against Hapsburg absolutism, the arch-Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Leopold did some cracking down.

Leopold suspended the Hungarian constitution and rounded up Protestant pastors, who “were not executed, but the choice of those convicted was between recantation and serving as galley slaves.” (Source)

Rough handling pushed the most aggrieved Hungarians into outright revolt in the 1670s, eventually led by the nobleman Imre Thököly.*

Thokoly enjoyed fantastic success, carving by force of arms a Principality of Upper Hungary roughly corresponding to present-day Slovakia. Squeezed as he was between the great powers of the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks, Thokoly allied himself with Sultan Mehmed IV and aided the Turks’ 1683 siege of Vienna.

That meant that his followers would share the downfall of that enterprise.

After the siege was thrown off, Thokoly’s rebellion was gradually quashed, culminating in a 1685 battle at Presov — one of Thokoly’s major bastions. (Hungarian link)

Thereafter, Thokoly himself would be a ward of the Ottomans, alternately a prisoner or a vassal captain in the field. (He would briefly establish himself as Prince of Transylvania with Ottoman backing in 1690.)

Pope John Paul II and Evangelical bishop Jan Midriak prayed together at a monument to the Presov martyrs in 1995.(cc) image from Jozef Kotulic.

For Presov and those misfortunate enough to be caught there, matters were worse.

The Hapsburg military governor of the former rebel territory, Antonio Caraffa, set up a star chamber to deliver some harsh justice.

From February 1687, Presov Protestants trying to raise money to re-establish war-damaged schools were accused of conspiring to rise again and subjected to a series of torture-driven show trials.

The first four of these, Sigmund Zimmermann, Caspar Rauscher, Andreas Keczer and Franz Baranyay, were beheaded and quartered on March 5, 1687. All told, some two dozen would die over the course of 1687 in this hunt, most of them on the scaffold — the Martyrs of Eperjes. (German link.)


Statue of Imre Thokoly at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. (cc) image from Hungarian Snow.

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1943: France Bloch-Serazin, bombmaker

Add comment February 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1943, French resistance heroine France Bloch-Serazin was executed by the Germans in Hamburg.

Bloch-Serazin English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Jewish Communist who had supported the Spanish Republican cause, so she was right in line for some official persecution after the Germans blitzed France.

No longer employable as a chemist, she put her training to good use manufacturing explosives in her apartment. (Today, a plaque in the 19th arrondissement marks the building.)

Arrested by French police on May 16, 1942, she was condemned to death by a German military court but deported to Germany to suffer that punishment. Her husband, Fredo Serazin, was subsequently murdered by the Gestapo in prison.

As France Bloch-Serazin was born in 1913, she has recently enjoyed a renewed appreciation around the centennial of her birth, including the homage (French link) of her native city of Poitiers.

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1931: The Longhua Martyrs and the Five Martyrs of the League of Left-Wing Writers

Add comment February 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the Chinese nationalists executed 23 Communists at Longhua, including five members of the League of Left-Wing Writers.

Early in what would prove to be the very long Chinese Civil War, the Koumintang government in 1930 mounted a suppression* of Communist outposts. That included military campaigns attempting to encircle communist-held regions, as well as an internal crackdown. It’s the latter that concerns us here.

A Communist-founded League of Left-Wing Writers operating in Shanghai was formally banned by the Koumintang in September 1930. Threatened with arrest, the writers struggled to stay underground but at a January 17 meeting in the British concession area,** British police arrested Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities.


The Five Martyrs: From left: Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Feng Keng, Yin Fu, Li Weisen (Li Qiushi)

They became the Five Martyrs of the League when they were shot this date in 1931 along with 18 other Communist prisoners, one of them a pregnant woman.

Among the five martyrs, Rou Shi† was particularly close to the great writer Lu Xun, who was heartbroken when he received word of his young protege’s untimely end — “one of China’s best youths,” in his estimation. In hiding himself, Lu Xun composed a “Lament for Rou Shi”:

To long and sleepless nights I’ve grown
accustomed in the spring;
Fled with a wife and babe in arms,
my temples are graying.
‘Mid dream there comes an image faint –
a loving mother’s tear;
On city walls the overlords’
e’er-changing banners rear.
I can but stand by looking on
as friends become new ghosts,
In anger face bayonet thickets
and search for verse ripostes.
The poem intoned, my gaze turns low –
one cannot write such down.
Moonlight shimmers with watery sheen
upon my jet-black gown.

(as translated by The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse)

The discerning present-day visitor to Longhua can pay respects at the Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery.

* The suppression claimed, among others, the life of Mao Zedong’s first wife.

** The extraterritorial British concession in Shanghai was a legacy of the opium wars.

† There’s an English translation of Rou Shi’s short story “A Slave Mother” here.

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1814: Mariano Matamoros, Mexican revolutionary

Add comment February 3rd, 2014 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, the Mexican revolutionary Mariano Matamoros was shot by the Spanish at Valladolid.

A Catholic priest (defrocked for the occasion of his execution) who had previously gone to prison for his nationalist sympathies, Matamoros joined the revolutionary army of fellow-clergyman Jose Maria Morelos as the Mexican War of Independence blossomed.

Matamoros proved to have the knack for martial leadership and was a lieutenant general and Morelos’s second-in-command within months.

The Spanish captured him in early January 1814 after the revolutionaries’ failed attempt to take Valladolid. His foes could not be moved to exchange him on any terms.

Though Morelos too would suffer this fate in time, their cause eventually prevailed. Post-independence, the martyred Matamoros became a Mexican national hero. He’s interred today at Mexico City’s iconic El Angel monumental column.

He’s the namesake of several locations, including the border city of Matamoros. (Longtime readers of this site might recall the 1913 Mexican Revolution execution in Matamoros that we’ve previously profiled.) One of Mexico City’s airports also bears the Matamoros name.

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1681: Isabel Alison and Marian Harvey, Covenanters

Add comment January 26th, 2014 Headsman

We turn today to William Crookshank’s (certainly partisan) narrative of the hanging of two Scottish Covenanters on this date in Edinburgh, as told in his The history of the state and sufferings of the Church of Scotland.


On the 25th of December some of the students in the College of Edinburgh brought to the head of the Cowgate the effigy of the pope in his robes, with his keys, mitre, and triple crown; and, when they had excommunicated him, they carried him about in a chair, like that wherein he is elected at Rome, to the foot of the Blackfriars’ Wynd. The students, knowing the thing had taken air, gave out that they were to carry his holiness in procession to the Grassmarket, the place of the execution of criminals; whereupon the guards marched thither. Meanwhile the boys marched in procession by the Black-friars’ Wynd to the High-street, three of them going before with lighted torches. Being come thither they condemned his holiness to be burnt: accordingly the torchmen blew up the effigy with gun-powder, notwithstanding their being attacked by some soldiers commanded by Linlithgow and his son; whom they warned to beware whom he struck, since he had relations among them.

The Duke of York’s [the future James II -ed.] being now in Scotland sharpened the edge of the persecution; so that no less than twenty were executed in the course of this year 1681.

The sufferers had, it is true, declared against the king’s authority, for which many of them were hanged, and otherwise persecuted by their enemies, and’censured by their friends. They branded them as madmen, enemies to government and civil society; but it is very plain that they never opposed government or monarchy as such, but only wicked, perjured, and persecuting governors. These they did oppose, and that for the very same reasons that brought about the Revolution and the protestant succession.

I cannot express this better than in the words of the author of the Memoirs of the Church of Scotland, when speaking of the Torwood excommunication. Says he,

I desire the impartial reader to compare it with the memorials above-mentioned, [to wit, the memorial to the Prince of Orange from the people of Great Britain, to invite him to come to their assistance] and see if it be posible for any British protestant, who owns the justice of the Revolution, to reflect upon the zeal of these people, without blushing for himself and the whole nation, that they did not see and abhor the tyranny of those reigns sooner; then they had joined with those people instead of censuring their zeal; the Revolution had then been brought about without sovereign help at all; the Prince of Orange had then been called over, as peaceably as King George, to take possession of the crown; and the blood of near 20,000 people, who were one way or other murdered and destroyed by that now abdicated race of tyrants, had been saved. What a shame is it, says he, to us, and how much to the honour of these persecuted people, that they could thus see the treachery and tyranny of those reigns, when we saw it not; or rather, that they had so much honesty of principle, and obeyed so strictly the dictates of conscience, as to bear their testimony early, nobly, and gloriously to the truth of God and the rights of their country, both civil and religious; while we all, though seeing the same things, yet betrayed the cause of liberty and religion, by a sinful silence and a dreadful cowardice.

But suppose, through the treatment, the unacountable treatment they met with, they had gone a little beyond due bounds, and though sometimes their expressions were not so well chosen, can that either condemn the principles of religion and liberty upon which they acted; nay, or their actual disowning those tyrants, who, for nothing but the matters of their God and Saviour, had declared them outlaws, rebels and traitors? Besides, the blood of many was shed, against whom they could prove nothing, but what they extorted from them by their ensnaring questions. Nay, even some of the weaker sex were hanged or drowned on this score. But I shall relate the matters of fact as they happened in the order of time.

It was a dreadful affront to the Duke of York to find his holiness treated in such a manner, on that grand festival the 25th of December; and therefore the sycophant managers must not overlook such an indignity.

Accordingly, on the 4th of January, the masters of the college declared their abhorrence of what their scholars had done; and on the 6th, the council commanded the magistrates to order the college gates to be shut, and the classes to be dissolved. About this time several of the students were imprisoned, besides Mr Ridpath, which so exasperated the rest, that it is said, they threatened to burn the provost’s house at Priestfield, because the magistrates, who were patrons of the college, instead of protecting them, had acted violently against them; and in a few days the house of Priestfield was burnt.

Whereupon the council, on the 17th, issued a proclamation, offering 2000 merks and a remission, to any who should discover the actors: but it does not appear that any discovery was made …

The order of time leads me to the case of Isobel Alison and Marion Harvey, two young women, who were executed this month, to the perpetual disgrace of the bloody managers, who could have no acts of what they called rebellion, in the least, to lay to their charge.

When they were taken, I know not. Isobel Alison was apprehended at Perth, where she lived, only for speaking against the severity used to sundry good people there; for they could accuse her of nothing else. Marion Harvey was seized while going one day from Edinburgh to hear sermon in the fields, and was last year before the council. But though they had nothing against these two young women, they were resolved to shed their blood: and therefore upon what they owned at their examination they founded their indictment, and took away their lives. That the reader may have a specimen of the injustice of this period, that afterwards became common, I shall here insert the substance of their examination first before the council, and next before the lords of justiciary.

When Isobel Alison was before the council, she was interrogated as follows:

Q. Can you read the Bible?

A. Yes.

Q. Do you know the duty we owe to the civil magistrate?

A. When the magistrate carrieth the sword for God, according to what the scripture calls for, we owe him all due reverence; but when they overturn the work of God, and set themselves in opposition to him, it is the duty of his servants to execute his laws and ordinances on them.

Q. Do you own the Sanquhar declaration? [a speech disavowing Presbyterian allegiance to the government]

A. I do own it.

Marion Harvey’s examination before the council was upon the same points with that of her fellow-sufferer … Only, among other tilings, they said, Will you cast away yourself so? To which shy replied, I love my life as well as any of you, but would not redeem it upon sinful terms. They said, the rock, the cod and bobbins, were as fit for her to meddle with as those things. They offered her the assistance of ministers, but she would have none of their pro. vidiug

On the 17th of January they were brought before the Lords of Justiciary; for it was the constant practice at this time, the one day to bring such as fell into their hands before the council, and there by ensnaring questions, to bring them into a confession of such things as they accounted treason, and next day to prosecute them before the criminal court. These two women were accused for hearing at field-conventicles, harbouring Messrs Cargill, Cameron, &c. owning the Rutherglen and Sanquhar declarations, &c.

When Isobel Alison was before them, she was examined as follows:

Q. Do you abide by what you said the last day?

A. I am not to deny any thing of it. She owned she had converged with David Hackstoun, and disowned their authority.

Q. Do you disown us and the king’s authority in us?

A. I disown you all because you carry the sword against God, and not for him, and have, these nineteen or twenty years, made it your work to dethrone him, by swearing, year after year, against him and his work, and assuming that power to a human creature which is due to him alone, and have rent the members from their Head, Christ.

… Then they said, Your blood be on your own head, we shall be free of it. She answered, So said Pilate, but it is a question if it was so; and ye have nothing to say against me, but for owning of Christ’s truths and his persecuted members. They made no reply, but desired her to subscribe what she had owned, and, upon her refusing, did it for her.

Marion Harvey, before the justiciary, owned the Sanquhar declaration, &c. and then protested that they had nothing to say against her as to matter of fact; but only that she owned Christ and his truth, his persecuted gospel and members; of which she said, Ye have hanged some, others you have beheaded and quartered quick. To this they said nothing; but called those who were to sit on the jury, who appeared with reluctance. One of them said, He did not desire to be engaged in this matter; but he was obliged: then he desired that the confessions of the two prisoners might be read, because he knew not what they had to say against them. When he was ordered to hold up his hand and swear, he fell a-trembling. The jury being fixed, the confessions were read, and the advocate in a speech, aggravated every particular, in order to prove them guilty of treason. Some of the jury urged that there was no fact proved against them. The advocate said, But treason is fact; and taking himself again, he said, It is true, it is only treason in their judgment, but go on according to our law; and if you will not do it, I will proceed. The jury brought them in guilty on their own confession; however, the passing of the sentence was deferred till the 21st, when they were both condemned to be hanged at the Grassmarket on the 26th.

Meanwhile, on the 20th, the council enlarged the powers of the laird of Meldrum for apprehending those who were in the rebellion. The many searches which were made in consequence of this were most oppresive. The same day the magistrates of Edinburgh were ordered to call all the masters of coffee-houses before them, and obliged them to come under a bond of 5000 merks, to suffer no news-paper to be read in their houses, but such as are approved of by the officers of state.

Next day all the students in the college of Edinburgh were ordered to retire fifteen miles from that place, within twenty four hours, and not to come within these bounds without leave from the council, under the pain of being treated as seditious persons. A fine protestant government, to make such a splutter about burning the pope! But it was decent to compliment his Royal Highness the Duke!

On the 26th, Isobel Alison and Marion Harvey were executed according to their sentence. The reader will find what passed between them and Mr Riddel in the Cloud of Witnesses, together with their respective testimonies. When they were brought from the prison to the council-house, in order to be carried from thence to the place of execution, Marion Harvey said, with a surprising chearfulness and heavenenly transport, Behold, I hear my Moved saying unto me, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. When in the council-house, Paterson bishop of Edinburgh (such was the spirit of the man!) said, Marion, you said you never would hear a curate, now you shall be forced to hear one; and immediately ordered one of his suffragans, whom he had prepared for the purpose, to pray. When he began, she said to her fellow-prisoner, Come, Isobel, let us sing the 23d Psalm; which they did, and thereby drowned the curate’s voice, and confounded their persecutors.

Their behaviour on the scaffold is not to be omitted. Isobel having sung the lxxxiv Psalm, and read Mark xvi, cried over the scaffold, and said, Rejoice in the Lord ye righteous; and again, I say, rejoice. She was not suffered to pray till she came to the foot of the ladder. As she went up, she cried out, ‘O be zealous, sirs, be zealous, be zealous! O love the Lord, all ye his servants! O love him; for in his favour is life!’ And added, ‘O ye his enemies, what will ye do? Whither will ye fly in that day? for now there is a dreadful day coming on all the enemies of Jesus Christ. Come out from among them, all ye that are the Lord’s people.’ Then she concluded, ‘Farewell all created comforts; farewell sweet Bible in which I delighted most, and which has been sweet to me since I came to prison; farewell Christian acquaintances. Now into thy hands I commit my spirit, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.’ Then the executioner threw her over.

Marion Harvey likewise sung Psal. lxxxiv. and having read Mal. iii, she said, ‘I am come here to-day for avowing Christ to be Head of his church and King in Zion. O seek him, sirs, seek him and ye shall find him: I sought him and I found him; I held him, and would not let him go.’ Then she rehearsed briefly the heads of her written testimony. Going up the ladder she said, 0 my fair one, my lovely one, come away. And, sitting down on the ladder, she said, ‘I am not come here for murder; for they have no matter of fact to charge me with ; but only by judgment. I am about twenty years of age: at fourteen or fifteen I was a hearer of the curates and indulged; and while I was a hearer of these I was a blasphemer and Sabbath-breaker, and a chapter of the Bible was a burden to me; but since I heard this persecuted gospel, I durst not blaspheme nor break the Sabbath, and the Bible became my delight.’ Upon this the commanding officer called to the executioner to throw her over, which he did accordingly.

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Feast Day of Saint Agnes

1 comment January 21st, 2014 Headsman

January 21 is the feast date and traditional martyrdom date (in the year 304) of Agnes of Rome, a 13-year-old put to death in the Diocletian persecutions who has the distinction of being among the seven women mentioned by name in the Catholic Canon of the Mass.

Agnes means “chaste” in Greek,* and this was precisely the problem.

As prosperous as she was pulchritudinous, she was pious even moreso and spurned the many suitors for her hand and bed. Eventually one or the other of them peevishly reported her as a Christian.

Upon arrest, the abstinent youth was allegedly subjected to an official program of sexual assault, including displaying her naked in public and forcing her into a brothel. It’s said that divine intervention prevented her violation in these ordeals. (The flowing locks in the Ribera portrait of her at right are part of that myth, supposed to have sprouted long enough to save her from her public shaming.)

Considering that her defining characteristic is her virginity, Agnes has quite the lurid legend — and that does not exclude her very martyrdom. Per the erotically-charged poetic account of the 4th-5th century Christian poet Prudentius,** Agnes rejoiced sensually in the executioner sent to to render her to her heavenly bridal-bed:

I rejoice that there comes a man like this,
A savage, cruel, and wild warrior,
Rather than a languid, soft,
Womanish youth fragrant with perfume,
Come to destroy my life with the death of my honor.

This lover, this one at last, I confess, pleases me.
I shall rush to his eager steps
And not demur from his hot ardor.
I shall welcome the entire length of
His blade into my bosom, drawing the sword-blow
To the depths of my breast.

-Original Latin here from Prudentius’s Liber Peristephanon (Crowns of Martyrdom)†

Agnes, whose purported relics are interred in the Roman church Sant’Agnese in Agone, is the patron saint of an entire pantheon of feminine sexual incipience: chastity, virgins, young women, and betrothed couples.‡

Little surprise, then, that the legend arose in Christendom that a maid could invoke the vision of her future husband by performing certain suggestive rituals — like lying supine and naked on her bed — on the eve of St. Agnes (that is, the night of January 20).

It’s upon this occasion that Keats pins his narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes§ (full text here or here), in which a young woman performing these rites is in her dreamlike state deflowered by the desired suitor her family forbids — and then the two slip away by night “o’er the southern moors.”

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.


The Eve of St. Agnes, by John Everett Millais (1863) shows Keats’s Madeleine about to disrobe before taking to bed on that occasion. The Keats poem was very popular with Millais’s pre-Raphaelite crowd.

* It’s also similar to the Latin word for lamb, agnus; consequently, the lamb is Agnes’s usual iconographic symbol.

** Prudentius, best-known for his seminal allegorical verse Psychomachia, composed a number of hymnal poems. Some are still in use today — such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”.

† Translation has a few tweaks of my own but is primarily that of Colbert I. Nepaulsingh in “The Afrenta de Corpes and the Martyrological Tradition,” Hispanic Review, Spring, 1983.

‡ She’s also the patron saint of rape victims.

§ Tennyson later wrote a short poem of his own touching the same theme, “St. Agnes’ Eve”.

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1944: Max Sievers, freethinker

1 comment January 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”

A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.

This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.

Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.

He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.

Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.

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1554: Guillaume Dalencon, defrocked priest

Add comment January 6th, 2014 Headsman

Felix Platter is our narrator for Guillaume Dalencon’s death at the stake on this date in 1554.

This book portrays the 16th century through the remarkable Platter family.

Platter (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a 16-year-old Swiss student, and we find him on the midpoint of his family’s upward arc in the world. His father, Thomas, had as a child been put out of the house by his impoverished mother and made his way for a time as a beggar; by dint of lifelong struggle and application, he had gained a precarious foothold among the bourgeoisie of Basel. Thomas Platter but had still greater ambitions for his son.

Accordingly, the very genial Felix, who had never before traveled, set out in 1552 on the 400-mile journey to the city of Montpellier in southern France. Young Platter was an energetic diarist, and his impressions of the journey and of Montpellier were published in English as Beloved Son Felix. (That’s how Felix’s father addressed him in letters.) Though the book is out of print, it’s available online at archive.org.

One of its immediately striking features is the omnipresence of danger and death. Platter luckily left Basel just ahead of a plague outbreak, but he nearly lost his life in the frightening Jurthen forest. Taking shelter from the rain there in “a wretched inn” at a squalid hamlet called Mezieres, Platter and his companion found the place full of aggressive Savoyard peasants, and having no choice but to stay overnight they blockaded their door with a bed and kept a waking vigil all night with weapons at the ready. Three hours before dawn, they crept through the snoring mass of drunken thugs and slipped away, and a good thing it was too: the boys’ French guide told them as they set out that he had overheard the brutes plotting to murder the hapless travelers that morning.

The bandit “Long Peter”, who was then active in this forest, was eventually caught and executed on the breaking-wheel in Berne. Only in his old age did Platter learn that the brigand’s confession included a declaration that he had planned, but failed, to kill some students in Mezieres.

They had escaped by the skin of the teeth, but seemingly every page of the journal finds others who succumbed to the many paths to abrupt death the 16th century had to offer. (Not a few of them are corpses that Platter stole from their graves with fellow-students in order to anatomize.) This was, too, the age of spectacular public execution: the travelers’ road on October 18th, 1552, passed numerous “bodies of men hanging from the trees” and as darkness fell Platter gave himself a fright when he nearly rode into one. By the 20th they approached Lyons, where they beheld “several men hanging from gibbets and others exposed on wheels.” As they entered that city, they passed a Protestant “being led out to be burnt outside the gate; he was in his shirt with a truss of straw fastened on his back.”

Platter makes no further comment on this sight, but it must have touched him with pity — if not fear. Platter had been born in Basel about the same time that John Calvin, fleeing French persecution, arrived there; it was in Basel that Calvin first published his seminal theology Institutio Christianae religionis. To this faith, predominant in Swiss cities but illicit in France, Platter too subscribed. The French Wars of Religion loomed around the corner in the next decade, and Montpellier would become a Huguenot stronghold during that conflict. While Platter was there, an uneasy peace prevailed between growing ranks of Protestants and the official religion. The University of Montpellier attracted numerous Protestant students (the city lay in the heart of the Languedoc, a center of resistance to the papacy from long before the Reformation), and Platter’s own mentor, the brilliant doctor Guillaume Rondelet, had ambiguous religious affiliations.

Day to day, these students kept their heads down in matters religious and went about mostly unmolested. Taking a vocal stand on theological controversies here would be to embark upon a different path than Thomas Platter had in mind for his son, for heretics were among the many executions Platter recounts in his journal.

Guillaume Dalencon, the boy learned, was a former priest of Mountauban, “unfrocked on the 16th of October” when it was discovered that he had gone Protestant and brought back heretical books from Geneva. “Dressed in his priestly robes, he was brought on to a platform before the bishop” for his defrocking. “After protracted ceremonies in Latin he was divested of his chasuble and the rest, and given secular clothing. Hishead was then shaved, and two fingers were cut off his hand. After this he was delivered to the civil justice and once more thrown into prison.” The secular power took it from there.

On the 6th of January Guillaume Dalencon, unfrocked eleven weeks before, and since then held in prison, was condemned to death. In the afternoon a man carried him on his shoulders out of the town towards the monastery, to the place of execution. A pyre had already been built there. Beind the condemned man two other prisoners walked, one a cloth shearer, in his shirt, with a bale of straw fastened to his back; the other of good appearance, and well dressed. Both of them had recanted and denied the true faith. [i.e., both had recanted Protestantism under the threat of execution. -ed.] Dalencon, however, sang psalms all the way. At he pyre, he sat down on a log and himself took off his clothes as far as his shirt, and arranged them beside him tidily, as though he would be putting them on again. He exhorted the other two, who were about to apostasize, so touchingly that the sweat stood out in great drops, as big as peas, on the forehead of the man in the shirt. When the monks, formed in a curve around him, and mounted on horseback, told him that it was time to make an end, he leapt joyously on to the pyre and sat down at the foot of the stake that rose in the center of it. This stake was pierced by a hole, through which ran a cord with a running noose. The executioner put the cord round Dalencon’s neck, tied his hands across his breast, and placed near him the religious books he had brought from Geneva. Then he set fire to the pyre. The martyr remained seated, calm and resigned, with his eyes raised towards heaven. When the fire reached the books the executioner pulled on the cord and strangled him; his head dropped to his breast and he made no further movement. Little by little the body was reduced to cinders. His two companions stood at the foot of the fire, where they were made to watch his sufferings, and could feel the heat of the flame.

After the execution they were both taken to the Hotel de Ville. Near there, in front of the church of Notre-Dame, a platform had been set up, with a statue of the Virgin on it, before which they would have to recant. The crowd had to wait for them for a long time. At last only one of the two men was brought out. The cloth shearer had refused to abjure and demanded that he should be executed without mercy for having failed his beliefs. He was therefore taken back to prison. The other man, who seemed to be a man of substance, was placed on his knees before the statue of the Virgin, with a lighted candle in his hand. A clerk read out various charges, to which he had to reply. In this way he saved his life, but he was sent to the galleys and there put in chains.

On the following Tuesday, the 9th of January, it was the turn of the cloth shearer again. He was strangled and burnt as the priest had been. He showed great courage, and no less repentance for having come so near to denying his faith. It had rained on that day, and the fire would not burn. The victim, who was not completely strangled, endured great suffering. At last the monks of the neighbouring monastery brought some straw, and the executioner took it and sent for oil of terebinth from my master’s pharmacy to ignite the fire. Afterwards I reproached the assistants who had given it to him, but they advised me to hold my tongue, for the same fate could befall me also, as a heretic.

During these affairs an extraordinary phenomenon occurred. On the 6th of January, immediately after the execution of the first man, it began to thunder violently. I heard it plainly and so did many others with me; but the priests deried us and said that it was the smoke from the burning of heretics that produced that effect.

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